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[Though I use the example of the EU referendum here, this is not an article about being Leave or Remain – that is essentially irrelevant to the point.]

Britain is still reeling from a referendum campaign that was torrid, and yet incredibly important. The US is going through a similar experience with their presidential campaign. Opinions from laypeople and self-professed experts are ten a penny. What annoys me (enough to commit to blog post) is the standard of critical analysis and thought from reporters out in the field and interviewers of the laypeople.

During the EU campaign I was sick and tired, and downright bloody angry, of the laissez-faire attitude of the reporters on the road, feeding their interviews of citizens live or recorded back to the studio. What got my goat was the absolute abdication from the throne of challenge that took place.

I have, evidently, a different view on what reporters should do. Perhaps I am wrong, since the title of the job suggests that the role is to rove around particular places to report on goings on and canvass opinion. With regard to the EU, reporters of all persuasions merely seemed happy to go about their target towns asking what people thought about Brexit. When they heard the opinions, they just said, “Thank you” and went on to the next person. There as no real challenge. This happens across subject matter and has been something playing on my mind for years. If someone had retorted, “I think we should all move to Mars in order to wear pyjamas”, there would be barely a batting of an eyelid before saying, “And that’s the opinion of people from Burnley”.

That’s not how I roll, and not how I think reporters should roll. If you were lucky, you might get a one question challenge to see what the answer might be. Rarely do you get robust, three-plus question responses as challenges to the people who hold their opinions, so that the viewer can get a sense of why people thought what they did. As a teacher, I don’t care what a prima facie answer is, I care what the thinking is behind that answer. That is where the real action is. A reporter, if they want to air anything with actual value needs not just to canvass opinion, but to bloody challenge it. I don’t care what my context is, if someone is going to make nonsense claims, then they need instant challenging.

In the EU referendum, there were too many previously debunked and patently false claims still being peddled by Joe Public that were let be by the many reporters recording them.

This approach can be seen in stark contrast to interviewers on talk radio and other places who are gaining huge traction when they are posted on social media and go viral. Take James O’Brien on LBC, who seems to do a great job at being more thoughtful and robust in his encounters with opinions that need challenging. This is why these videos are popular. News outlets, take note.

When it does go right, it never seems to come from the actual reporters or newsreaders, but from fellow panellists ready to give it both barrels. This, as posted before, is diamond:

YouTube video

I demand that reporters buck up their ideas, and start employing their critical faculties to actually challenge the views of the people they interview.

Properly. Not just once.

Or twice.

Keep going.

And again.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Oh, your opinion has been completely invalidated and found to be sitting on a foundation of…nothing.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...